The holiday season can be stressful for children and parents alike. Things such as travel, large gatherings and even wrapped gifts can overwhelm many kids.
Here are some tips from Mandy Jones, one of our post-adoption therapists at The Cradle, to help parents handle some of the challenging situations the holiday season presents:
1. Create a structure and stick to it as best as you can.
One difficulty of the holiday season is that children are on break and lack the structure school provides.
“Children get comfortable with their routine and knowing what’s coming from class period to class period,” Mandy says. “It can be confusing and anxiety-provoking not to have that structure every day.”
Mandy suggests creating a schedule for children, even if it’s a simple one within the home, and doing activities together such as wrapping presents, arts and crafts, or baking cookies.
“For younger kids who need visuals, parents might use clip art or stickers on the schedule so the child can see what their day is going to look like,” Mandy suggests. “It sounds like a lot more work for parents, but if it helps kids’ anxiety and behavior stay in check, then it’s worth it.”
Mandy also suggests retaining usual naptimes and bedtimes, even if it means leaving a holiday gathering early, to try and keep kids on their schedule.
2. During large gatherings, take a break with your child in a quiet room.
It’s always better to prevent an outburst than to react to one. If you are attentive to your child’s “tell signs,” you can perceive when they are starting to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, Mandy suggests finding a space that is easier on the senses to calm your child down.
“There are different foods, it’s louder, and there are tons of lights,” Mandy says. “So for kids who have sensory issues or even for those who don’t, there’s much more sensory stimulation than they’re used to.”
Even if a child does not show any signs of anxiety, Mandy suggests taking a break or two as a preventative measure to calm down their senses.
3. If your child does have an outburst, you can use the same technique.
It’s important to try to stop outbursts before they happen, but whether in a proactive or reactive effort, the best way to calm a child is to bring him or her to a quiet, uncrowded space.
“Ideally use that sensory break preventatively, but when a child is really melting down, taking them into a quiet room to calm and soothe them can be very effective,” Mandy says. “Think about some of the things that calm them. For younger children, typically it’s sucking on something. Try to think about the five different senses and how we can help calm a child based on them. Would eating or drinking something help?” Mandy suggests a water or juice bottle but is cautious about sugar during this time of year because there are already a lot of sugary foods at holiday gatherings.
“Or maybe a darker room that’s quieter as well,” she adds.
4. This is also a great technique if a parent gets stressed.
You’ve been cooking, shopping, traveling, and more. It’s perfectly fine as a parent if you are feeling stressed or anxious, and it’s perfectly fine to take a quick breather to calm yourself.
“Take a 5-10 minute break,” Mandy says. “Go for a walk, go sit in a quiet room. It can work for parents just as well.”
5. Recognize that a child’s needs differ from yours, and possibly even from another child’s in the home. Be empathetic!
If a child is being difficult, try to be understanding.
“It’s not about your child ‘running the show,’ but about trying to meet their needs so that they can have fun and enjoy the holiday environment as much as you do,” says Mandy.
If your child has an outburst, empathy is a very important part of calming him or her down.
“Keep in mind that if your child does throw a tantrum, try to stay calm yourself and understand that this environment is really more than your child can handle,” Mandy says. “That can help keep your child calm or calm them quicker if they are already in a tantrum. A parent getting angry and saying, ‘you’re ruining our holiday’ is not helpful.”
6. If your child has a different birth culture, incorporate that into your holiday celebration.
Many adopted children come from families with different cultures than their adoptive families.
Mandy suggests acknowledging the birth family in some way. If there is contact between the birth and adoptive families, a couple options include getting together to celebrate or sending a holiday card. If there isn’t contact, sending something to The Cradle to honor the birth parent is also an option. Of course, families are always encouraged to come up with unique ways to honor the relationship.
“For kids, especially if they have openness with their birth family, think about how you are including birth parents in their holiday traditions,” Mandy says. “Even if they don’t have physical contact, it can help kids feel like they have some sort of connection. Also, talk with them about their birth culture and incorporating it into the family’s traditions.”
7. Ask your child what holiday traditions they are interested in.
Work together to find out what traditions from both your culture and your child’s birth culture would be a good fit for your child.
“Try putting yourself in your kid’s shoes,” Mandy recommends. “Listen and observe. It will give you some cues as to where they are.”
Depending on the age of your child, the actual words may not be most important part of their response. Body language and other cues can tell more about what a child finds interesting and what makes him or her uncomfortable.
“Ask for their opinion,” Mandy says. “Or, for parents who are in their first holiday season with their child, think about something that is going to be important to them as they grow up. How can we start something small now that can grow as our child grows?”
8. If it’s an option, consider hosting a holiday gathering rather than traveling.
The holidays are overwhelming for a lot of people, especially if there’s travel involved. Factors such as traffic, snow, weather delays or canceled flights can add a whole new level of anxiety. Kids sense that, even if they don’t necessarily know what’s going on or understand the logistics of it.
Being at home provides a familiar place where it would be less likely for a child to have his or her senses overwhelmed. The home also provides a natural cooling off space, such as the child’s bedroom or another area where he or she feels particularly comfortable.
“They’d be in their own environment, the sights and sounds would be familiar,” Mandy says, “and it might be easier to keep to their general schedule regarding naps, bedtime etc.”
9. Consider not wrapping presents.
This comes down to knowing your child. The unknown of a wrapped present can be thrilling for some children but produce anxiety for others. If your child gets anxious from the unknown, you may want to consider leaving presents unwrapped.
“It’s not a vast majority. It’s probably a smaller minority,” Mandy observes. “But it’s not that uncommon that wrapped gifts create anxiety and tension for some children. That may be a consideration for parents. I know wrapping presents is a tradition for most, so it can be a hard decision to make.”
10. The holiday season can be a time for growth for children and parents alike.
No matter how much you prepare, the holidays can be a naturally stressful time. Use these high-stress, high-anxiety moments as a way for both you and your child to grow so that you can better handle these situations in the future.
“On a very simple level, if a child has a freak-out, maybe next year let’s not do all of those things,” Mandy advises. You can use such situations to teach your child new skills and make yourself a better parent in the future.
The holiday season can also present other learning opportunities for adopted children and their parents.
“If your child has questions, or you suspect that because of where they are in their development they are asking how their birth culture fits into all of this, it’s an opportunity to do some research,” Mandy says. “Ask questions yourself. Together with your child, learn more about where they came from. That way you can incorporate their birth culture into your traditions going forward.”
For more tips on how to handle holiday stress, Adoption Learning Partners has a one-hour webinar on the topic: “Overwhelmed for the Holidays: An Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Holidays.”